Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Mechanics Come Last

Social media is a strange and powerful tool. In addition to being friends with a lot of industry professionals, I sometimes get friend requests on Facebook from friends of friends. (And that’s a lot times to use “friend” in a sentence, by the way). Usually, they’re fans of my work who have found me through their friends, and they send me a friend request. I generally accept these, figuring that a friend of my friend can’t be all bad. And besides, I don’t have many friends.

Many times, these people want to ask me about what it’s like to work in the hobby games industry, and I’m glad to share war stories. I love this profession, and this industry. And I’ve seen and done some funny stuff. But sometimes, these people want me to look over their own creations. I have a policy against this, because I’ll end up giving away all kinds of free advice. And like the Joker said, “if you’re good at something, you should get paid for it.”

One of these people is my friend, Paul. Paul’s been working on a game for I-don’t-know-how-long, and it shows. I agreed to read the first chapter, and it was a confused mess. I don’t want to tell you about the idea, because it’s his, not mine. So you’ve got to trust me that I quickly got lost when I tried to create a character for his game. That’s bad.

But I love the idea. It’s based on some anime properties that I really enjoy watching.

The problem is that Paul got lost in his own creation. He was so busy trying to create an RPG that he lost sight of the central idea. It would be like setting out to write a children’s book and ending up writing a three-volume epic quest.

One night, it just came to me. The answer. And I started writing. When he looked at what I was doing, Paul was taken aback a bit. But what about this? And how are we going to handle that? I told him a simple truth: He had to begin again. He had to start from scratch, trying to preserve as much of his original work as possible. That meant going back to the beginning.

What do you play? And what do those characters do?

Things were going along swimmingly. Paul totally loved the new structure to character creation. We began outlining ideas. And that’s when he asked what would become the subject of this blog: What about the system?

Wait, what? System is the last thing you should be thinking about. You can play almost any game using almost any system. You can port D&D over to Metamorphosis Alpha. You can play Call of Cthulhu using the Palladium System. System doesn’t matter. I can write my post-apocalyptic RPG for Pathfinder, Savage Worlds, or the Unisystem. All I’ve got to do is pick. That has nothing to do with “what do I play?” or “what do I do?”

Moreover, if you start with the die-rolling mechanic, you end up making the setting fit the statistics, when it should be the other way around. For example, Call of Cthulhu is a game about the slow (or not so slow) descent into madness as you learn sanity-blasting truths, so it has the Sanity rules. No one said “Hey, we’ve got these great Sanity rules, what we need now is a property to adequately use them.” That’s putting the cart before the horse. The ideas come first, then you worry about mechanics.

In fact, we wrote 80 percent of the Star Trek: The Next Generation RPG with no rules at all. The guy designing the system hadn’t finished yet. But we couldn’t sit around for six months waiting for the guy. So we wrote it with a bunch of holes where the mechanics would go. For example, in character creation, we made a list of skills for each class. What was the skill mechanic? Who cares? We added the numbers later. How much damage do phasers cause? I didn’t know; didn’t stop me from describing phasers. If a rule didn’t fit how we wanted the game to work – if they didn’t model the kind of action dictated by the setting – we changed the rule.

Now Paul is energized. Sent me a list of notes for his game the next day. He’s excited. He’s stripping away all the things that aren’t his original idea, and adding stuff that was missing. It’s a stronger concept. He’s started re-writing his character creation system, and it’s a lot clearer now. He's not worried about die mechanics or skill systems yet. He's just creating his world. The rest comes later. 

The Pitch
And that same kind of advice I offered to Paul is what I’m offering to you. You can have me for a full week, for free.
  • Do you have a game setting that you’d like me to read, and give you my feedback?
  • Do you have an idea for an RPG, and you’re not sure you’re hitting the mark?
  • Do you simply want a chapter written?
  • Are you stuck, and need a pair of fresh eyes to look things over?
  • Maybe write an adventure you could give away as a stretch goal on your Kickstarter?

All you have to do is make a contribution to Sara Bakay’s IndieGoGo fundraiser. For a donation of as little as $10, you’re entered into a drawing to receive my services, free of charge, for one week. Imagine having an award-winning game designer working for you for as little as $10. Either click on the embedded link, or her picture at the top of the page. 

Thank you for your donation. And good luck! 


  1. great advice - cool contest. hope you get lots of entries!

  2. I love it when people name drop me :)